Only two industries call people “users”: surveillance capitalists and drug dealers.

“User” is an othering. It dehumanises the person; making it easier for us to profile, manipulate, and monetise them.

(In Small Tech, we do not call people “users”; we call people “people.”)

@aral I think this analogy is interesting and raising an important point.

However, I think the argument is still partially flawed because (a) also the person using a non-profit (non-exploitative, etc.pp.) software, would still be called a user and (b) the term user merely was created to distinguish it from customer (a paying user).

So, yes, I understand where you're coming from. But I still think that the way you put it you assume too much bad will for sth that was just easy to name a "user".

@aral that's an over simplification, nice idea but no, there are many reasons to fall back on the term user, for example when an organisation provides services to other organizations. In that example there are people in the providing org and people in the org that uses the services. To differentiate, users is a useful distinction and easily understood by non native-english speakers.

@aral but word "user" is at home in software in general.

Check your manual page for whoami(1). User names all around.

Analogies you mention are nasty, but in decent software, this word means any sentient being using this program. Don't see any wrong here. Do you?

@aral I'll add up public transportation (at least in my country). People has been downgraded from *travellers* to *users*, pairing with the dystopian nightmares the new train stations are built to resemble.

@aral They made train traveling undesirable to me, I'll never forgive them.

@aral Some industries call them "test subjects"…

Strictly speaking, "user" is a role, not an inherent condition. While "people" is often too generic, and e.g. "popular" may be an euphemism for demagogy.

Still, there is always the question: how to make the "user interface" "easy to use" / "user-friendly", that is accessible without deep prior knowledge or special skills, yet encourage the "users" to become something more than just that, and not discourage those who already have the knowledge and skills from the participation.

Maybe the "user-friendliness" should be better called accessibility, in a broader sense. And "user interface" — just "human interface" (is there such a thing as "administrator interface" anyway…).

@aral what‘s next? Stop talking about resources if we mean particular employees, venues, devices or cash?!

@tbm So, for example, should we stop referring to people as “human resources” or, even worse, “human capital?”

Hell yes.

@aral Going to have to agree with the dissenters, and since I am in an industry where we have users.

They use the systems we create and maintain.

They are NOT always people. Some are, some are specialists, some are technicians, some are _BUSINESSES._ Yes, they are users.

The term 'people' doesn't work because businesses are NOT people, and some of the users _are_ businesses.

There's a potential issue with reducing 'user' to 'people' - and very common for big tech (and large companies) - heck in the US, a corporation is now legally the same as an individual. THIS is a much, much bigger issue. And it is aided by calling 'users' people, because hostile actors will adapt this to include _them_ instead of _actual_ people.

So yes, it's important to make that distinction. But in software, there are _users._ And some of those are NOT people.

(Also: bots aren't people. They are USERS. And they can be good actors in communities. I follow some selfhelp _BOTS._)

@Truck Now tell me, if you use the same term to refer to non-humans as you do to humans, which one gets the shorter end of that stick?

(Thank you for making my point for me.)

@aral The same group who gets the short end of the stick when you REMOVE them from 'users.'

I'd dare say that it's even MORE harmful to remove them from 'users.'

@Truck Remove them from users, add them to people. Ah, problem solved.

@aral No, problem complicated.

Remember: People legally contains corporations in some jurisdictions.

@aral What I'm really trying to get across here is that rhetoric and semantics can be twisted.

Change "user" to "people" and the problems with "user" migrate to "people."

We need to change the _thinking_ not the _wording._

@aral @Truck and abolish all laws and fight against all ideas that treat corporations as people.

@aral I'm working in the software industry for decades and we've been referring the users of the software as "users" with no negative attitude. You're implying very bad things without any reason or proof.

@publicvoit @aral I was thinking along the same lines, but I am not a native english speaker so I started questioning my thinking.

I certainly first encountered "user" in the computer industry and was not at all aware of the "other" usage. So I "learned" the meaning from its use in this ecosystem rather than what a native speaker would likely do.

Merriam-Webster is pretty clear in the Synonyms section:

@dzu @aral I can follow your rationale here and yes, Webster does seem to ignore the IT point of view completely.
I do not like and I can not copy the idea that the IT industry is mocking its "users" in a very bad way for decades.
Yes, there seems to be bad usages of "user" but this does not seem to cover all cases.
The context is an important part when you judge the meaning of a word. And we're clearly speaking of different contexts.
Disclaimer: I'm no native speaker either.

@publicvoit @aral Of course I am not happy to learn that my own usage of a term might not have been what I intended it to be all along. But isn't that exactly the difficult part, to question even very old and "solid" beliefs?

So I was trying to understand how this term is used by native speakers and I most certainly would like to get more input on this end.

Going over it in my head I really couldn't find any other uses of the term. No "car users", "book users" or any such thing came to mind.

@publicvoit @aral Random quote of the day:

"Perfecting oneself is as much unlearning as it is learning."
-- Edsger Dijkstra

@dzu @aral I just want to make sure this is nothing related to snowflakes, political correctness or gender movements which is not anything I want to take part of - independent of sides and arguments.

If you want to add a negative attitude you call them lusers.
The BOFH did.

@aral In amateur radio emergency communications, we refer to organisations like the Red Cross, St. Johns Ambulance, etc. as "users"...

You may have been living in the surveillance capitalism bubble too long.

@aral Usage of this term in amateur radio also predates the existence of computers and software.

@aral In german at least, people going to libraries are also users ("Nutzer*innen").
Learning about the word's use in this context made me start thinking hard on the origin of such terms, it's weird. I totally agree with your sentiment

@aral You may want to take a look at where this came from and who else likes to claim virtue by not saying "user". It was popularized by Don Norman from a presentation he made at Facebook who adopted this semiotic rule. It's also used by Uber who are also not so famous for humane business practices. These cases make this terminology seem more like "ethics-washing".

But beyond the associations, there are tons of words that we use to temporarily categorize people: programmer, student, pedestrian, traveler. Do you feel I'm dehumanizing someone if I refer to them with one of those terms?

'Use' might not be specific enough in some cases but it is contextual and active – it implies individual agency and choice. But personhood is something received that you can't really opt out of. Am I not a person if I don't use your software?!

And there are literally thousands of English words that have some negative connotations but we continue to use them and deal with occasional ambiguities.

Banishing words doesn't really solve a problem. I'd rather be called a user and be treated fairly rather than be called a Valued Community Member but get hustled.

@cjd Just imagine: being called a person AND being treated well.


Some people consider "person" to be a dehumanizing term, because it is, legally, an individual, corporation, partnership or trust.

But more to the point, what I'm saying is that crusading against the term "user" is tilting at windmills because, as we saw from Microsoft Github's main branch stunt, Big Tech is not above using language tricks to claim moral high ground.

@cjd @aral
The fact that companies try to boost their image by being careful about language issues (but not necessarily caring) doesn't make language issues less relevant.

@aral I have great affection for the people that use my systems. They're not just people, they're my users.

@aral as someone who used to take party drugs during the rave days, most dealers (at least pre-Snapchat/techbro culture) were personal friends or acquaintances of the drug users (and often part of the same peer group).

"Drug user" as someone to be monitored or manipulated is more often used by Police, and NHS/Social Services (in the context of nudging them to abstain from or moderate their drug use!)

@aral This reinforces stigma against people who choose to use different drugs than you. Not cool.

@be Yep, that was exactly the point I was making. Thanks.

@aral People using and selling drugs is a very different thing from surveillance technology. Your analogy reinforces a presumption that there is something inherently wrong with (some) people using (certain) drugs. Surveillance capitalism is a problem; people choosing what they put in their bodies is not.

@aral i like the poetry in this! i think it stems from a good thought process of empowerment. But i was put off by the last sentence in between parentheses. Much due to the use of capital letters… after all we’re into semantics here, no?

‘In Company Name we do not call people “users”; we call people “people.”‘

Marketing is a form of verb-magic, for sure.

But yeah! Sign me up to empower people! Everyone diserves more than a sentiment of power. Are words tools to achieve this? The ideas they convey can certainly be.

@setto Thanks. PS. Small Tech isn’t a company; it’s the opposite of Big Tech. (Small Technology Foundation, which Laura and I run, is the org and it’s a non-profit.)

@aral i can appreciate that. It still equates to marketing. Which by all means is ok to me. And clearly it is effective, judging by the amount of interaction it has generated. I find myself wishing that marketing magic in general would be less prone to use polarizing lingo. Although i admire the irony of using such divisive rethoric to promote a leveling and unitarian mindset.

In any case, human language is mutable science: i will be ready to use "People" Instead of "user" the day the majority of tech documentation engages me to.

@aral people is also othering, it's inherently grouping multiple persons into a cohesive whole, which frames the situation as a anonymous bunching. Why not consider them as distinct, dignified, sovereign individuals, rather than part of an indistinguishable herd. It is inherently dehumanizing.

You might conside term "persons" even though it may be classified as archaic. "people" is largely an artifact of state-level actors referring to their constituents as a group, like cattle.

@aral people is still useful in the context of an anonymous unknown group where individuals are mostly indistinguishable. But in your case clearly they are distinguishable as somebody who uses your software and hence the inherent dichotomy with the term user that people are balking against.

I am a person. I'm not a people.

@ultimape @aral I think people is more appropriate. It considers both the individual and collective rights/concepts.

@satur @aral This is the inherent trade off it seems aral is making -> choosing to frame an ideological and moral situation vs choosing the use and utility. Rejecting "user" for "people" because "It dehumanises the person; making it easier for us to profile, manipulate, and monetise them."

Where we draw the line in terms clarity might be debatable, but there are reasons why I used the term "people farming" here to refer to aspects of surveillance capitalism

@satur @aral I'm also trolling because I think at the core this debate is litterally over 200 years old and I find it funny how larger corporations are rehashing the same arguments that occurred during the time around the french revolution and formation of the americas. The linguistics around power and control are meaningful when trying to define respect of person and define their relationship.

Theses things are powerful magicks.

@satur @aral I have a lot of respect for Aral's handling of his role as someone in power as the author of software that many persons will use. And even if we might not all agree on the appropriate term, I enjoy seeing this discussion take place.

Reminds me of when there was a conflict over the term 'user' in early operating system nomenclature that ended up seeding the outgroup derogatory 'luser' out of people's frustration.

@satur @aral One of the interesting things I see happening in this space is because of the conflict between 'user' and 'vendor' and connotations of it being servant role (or producer/consumer?), it also inherently creates a hostile relationship between the communities of software writers and the persons whom use it without being a direct contributor.

@satur @aral People in general are being conditioned to treat software providers as mere cogs in a corporate machine. Anchoring 'persons' with this alternate relationship frame might be a way to work to deprogram that mentality as a whole and foster a more equitable relationship in this space. If we can repurpose an old and archaic word instead of simply diluting 'people', it might do a better job at educating.

@satur @aral
While I am largely descriptivist in the way I see language, I intuit an opportunity here to harness a 200 year old debate about power and relationship building to drive a memetic firestorm around the relationship between software creators and software consumers. I want see the starts of shift into a landscape of 'software participants' with a more communal and collective framing.

@satur @aral The larger problem is that the language we currently have, like 'user', is tainted with years of cultural baggage. We've inherited linguistic frames that inherently create a priestly class of software developers that are wards over their 'user' flock, and that has since become exploitative. "People vs Persons" is exactly the kind of weird relationship & power debate that we need to have to unseat these corporate driven memes.

@ultimape @Moon @aral totally valid. I am reading about the topic thanks to you :ac_happy:

@satur @Moon @aral
One of the more sinister versions of this is the company behind is giving smart thermometers to schools thanks to a 'gracious grant' by Lysol

And their (insecure) tools are literally used to harvest health data to sell targeted ads.

We are being used. And I don't want to be a user of a system that targets me as a potential mark.

@ultimape @satur @aral I don't think you're being insincere. I'm not either, though.
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